Thousands of California eighth-graders who have been pushed into taking high school algebra lack the preparation they need to succeed in those classes, and are being set up for failure.
That is one of the key findings of a report by EdSource released today, titled "Improving Middle Grades Mathematics Performance." It takes a close look at California's push in recent years to have students take Algebra I in the eighth grade instead of in high school.
On one level, that effort has been spectacularly successful. Since 2003, the number of students taking Algebra I has soared by 80 percent. The increase has been most dramatic among low-income, African American and Latino students, many of whom did not previously have access to the course in the middle grades.
The study found that students who were most prepared for Algebra I – those who scored high on the state's seventh-grade California Standards Test (CST) for math – generally did well in the eighth-grade Algebra I class. As the report notes, "placement in Algebra I in grade eight for the state's most prepared math students appears to have served them well."
However, nearly one-third of eighth-graders who took the Algebra I standards test in 2010 – some 80,000 students – scored at a "below basic" or "far below basic" level, which is regarded as a failing score. Those figures included nearly 51,000 Hispanic and more than 8,000 African American students.
These failure rates, according to the report, do not mean that students shouldn't be encouraged to take more advanced courses. Rather, schools need to be much smarter in making sure students are adequately prepared, and that they have the support necessary to succeed.
California's middle grade educators should continue to widen access to challenging mathematics course work – building on a strong foundation from earlier grades, based on careful understanding of students' preparedness, and leveraging all the interventions and support that districts and schools have the resources to provide.
For at least a decade, educators have grappled with the issue of just when students should be required to take algebra. Two years ago, the State Board of Education triggered a huge controversy by ordering that Algebra I in the eighth grade be made mandatory. But a legal challenge filed by the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators derailed the effort.
The push for middle school students to take what historically has been a high school class is based, at least in part, on the belief that the sooner students complete the class, the sooner they will be able to enroll in college prep classes and complete their college entrance requirements. Passing Algebra I is not only a high school graduation requirement, it is also one of the basic requirements for entrance into UC and CSU.
However, EdSource Deputy Director Mary Perry, a lead researcher on the report, said that if students waited until ninth grade to take Algebra I, they would still have ample time to complete CSU and UC entrance requirements.
The report notes that with the state's adoption of the new national Common Core curriculum standards, it will have an opportunity to revisit just what aspects of algebra it should expect of eighth graders. It recommends that school districts look much more carefully at how well students score on the seventh-grade math CST before placing them in Algebra I, and consider other course options, like stretching out what is typically a one year course over a period of two years.
Above all, schools should focus on giving students who need it more preparation before throwing them in the deep end of a course whose outcome could significantly shape their futures.
"Challenge is important, but so is challenge with success," said EdSource senior research associate Matthew Rosin. "There is no substitute for students entering the eighth grade better prepared, so they can be more successful with challenging content."